Mr. Hooligan, by Ian Vasquez. Minotaur Books, 2010. 342 pp., US$25.99


Ian Vasquez’s third novel, Mr. Hooligan, packs much of what makes Belize interesting into 342 fast-paced pages: a main character with as many bumps and dead ends as a Belize City back street, bars and booze, corrupt politicians, drug runners, a failed priest, a weed-smoking ex-nun, incest, a sexy American expat and enough noir to paint the entire country black.

Raised in Belize and now a copy editor at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, Vasquez has set all three of his novels in Belize, or mostly so. This one takes place mainly in Belize City, with short but important excursions to the Manatee Highway, Caye Caulker, Lamanai and the New River.

With each Belize book, Vasquez gets better and better. Mr. Hooligan is far richer, more textured and more nuanced than its two predecessors. Vazquez is particularly strong with some of his supporting characters. Sister Pat is a blunt-speaking former nun who drank too much and left her order. Now she likes the occasional joint to take the edge off. Ex-priest Roger Hunter was a teacher who left St. John’s College to run guns and liberation theology in El Salvador and who is now dying of cancer. Turu is a dumb kid with a flair for colorful language – he calls a drunk U.S. tourist “illubricated.” Malone is an Ivy League-educated oaf with the U.S. DEA in Belize. Brisbane Burns is a wealthy tough guy, with a penchant for guns and boys.

The central character, Riley James, is a Belize City bwai, the son of an alcoholic mother and a mostly absent father, and on track for no good. He’s a St. John’s dropout who, in a moment of stupidity years ago killed two small-time thugs on the Manatee Highway. The Monsanto brothers, inbred and smarmy, protect Riley and even take him in for a while. In return for these favors, Riley is locked into a lifetime of making drug runs for the Monsantos. Smart and a reader, Riley tries to escape by building a successful business, Lindbergh’s Landing (a real but now closed bar in Belize City). He’s looking to do just one last job for the Monsanto brothers, and then leave Belize.

Riley almost succeeds, until one day on a joy ride around Belize City, he and his childhood friend, Harvey, accidentally run over and kill a dog belonging to a government minister. The minister and her driver shake them down for about BZ$170,000 – it’s an expensive dog -- and thus begins Riley’s spiral into a new round of drug deals and killings and bad karma.

The action, like the Belize weather, is hot and changeable. If something can go wrong for Riley, it probably will. Riley loves his son, Duncan, from a previous marriage, his longtime advisor Sister Pat, and Candice, an American photographer now living a double life in Belize, whom he wants to marry. But Riley finds it's not easy escaping the wrong side of life, or Belize.

As much as I like Mr. Hooligan, a few little things bother me. Ostensibly set in 2007 --- based on a character’s trip to Chetumal to see the movie “The Bourne Identity” – one of the novel’s central locales, Lindbergh’s Landing, the bar owned by main character Riley James, actually closed almost 10 years ago. If we aren’t supposed to call the real Lindy’s to mind, why not name it something else? While novelists have the right to alter time and space, discontinuities like this bug me. Also, although this book is set in Belize City, there’s remarkably little Creole spoken, a sacrifice of authenticity for readability, I guess.

But, despite these little faults, I have to admit I can’t wait until Ian Vasquez’s next novel.

Lan Sluder is the author of some 10 books and eBooks on Belize.